Books

A New Oral History Of 'The Simpsons' Offers Plenty Of Facts And A Little Complaining

The cover of John Ortved's 'The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History.'

The first 75 percent or so of John Ortved's The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History is brisk and engaging and likely to entertain Simpsons die-hards without breaking a sweat. Conan O'Brien talks about the gags he pulled in the writers' room; details emerge about the way the show developed into its current form; gossipy stories about James L. Brooks and Matt Groening (who both come off badly for different reasons) are tossed about. There are great stories about Michael Jackson and Aerosmith, and it's a fine reminder of just how crazy the show's merchandising got back in the day.

Neither Groening nor Brooks cooperated with the book, and neither did writer-producer Sam Simon (whom Ortved fingers as the primary genius at work on the show), so it's an oral history with the central figures missing. Ortved goes to some trouble in a recent Daily Beast piece to argue that the book was so daring that Fox pulled out all the stops to try to stop it from being published and to deny him access, but there's certainly nothing in the book explosive enough to justify quite that much of a dust-up.

Ortved's thesis, essentially, is that lots of people are responsible for the success of The Simpsons, and their creator, Matt Groening, has too often been viewed as the sole source to the detriment of others who also deserve to be praised. That's the nut of the story, so don't go in expecting anything particularly adventurous based on the claim that Fox was terrified of the book.

At any rate, most of Ortved's work provides a solid basic history, even if a lot of it will be familiar to fans. He weaves together interviews with writers and cast members who worked on the show, people who were on the business side, and people who knew the folks involved. There's a good balance between information and gossip; between a story about simmering creativity and a story about flawed human beings who showed their flaws — as many do — more and more as the money accumulated.

He works around the absences of Groening, Brooks and Simon by rolling in quotes from interviews they've done in the past and, in some cases, even quotes from DVD commentaries (that one seems like a stretch). It's not unfair, exactly, but it's distracting, and serves as a constant reminder that you are, in fact, experiencing a workaround.

The bigger problem, however, is that the book Ortved seems to really want to write is a book called To Whom Shall I Send My Letter Of Complaint Regarding The Creative Downfall Of The Simpsons? And when he gets to that final section, things go a little off-course.

Too much bold type appears, after the jump.

After spending most of the book using actual reporting to flesh out the facts, Ortved largely turns the floor over to himself for the part of the book in which he describes the creative decline of the show and tries to figure out whose fault it is by not infrequently simply declaring, among other things, which episodes are good and which are bad, sometimes without explaining himself at all.

For most of the book, Ortved's voice appears here and there in bold type as a kind of narrative glue, to transition from one person's recollections to another, or to fill in details and provide basic context. But as the book comes to a close, he's doing most of the talking, and the paragraphs of bold type accumulate. It's hard to understand why he couldn't have gotten fans of the show, for instance, to talk about the fact that they continue to watch because they still love the character of Homer, rather than simply declaring, "No matter how dull one week's episode might be, or how close to sitcom catch-phrasery The Simpsons slips, Homer Simpson is so beloved, and still so surprising, we will tune in to see what he will say next."

Aside from the fact that this is a pretty clichéd way to describe a comedy character ("we tune in to see what he will say next"), it represents an odd shift from the rest of the book, and it begins to feel a little ... well, a little Comic Book Guy.

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